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XL enjoys success in fall, continues in spring

By Shannon Mohr

Project XL, an experimental program that offers small group learning opportunities to underrepresented minority students at MIT, had a very successful first semester this fall, according to Judy J. Pitts, the recently appointed director of the Office of Minority Education. Out of 40 freshmen participating in the program, only three did not pass all of their courses.

The MIT administration has allotted funds for the continuation of the program into the spring semester because of the overwhelming positive student response and success rate. However, the groups will be slightly larger due to lack of funds and personnel, and the usual Friday lectures will be eliminated.

Small group learning

This fall marked the inauguration of Project XL. The 40 participants were chosen from Interphase, an Institute program created to help minority students make the transition from high school to college. XL was created as an addition to the Interphase program.

Project XL was developed last May after Dean for Student Affairs Shirley M. McBay and faculty members reached a compromise with students concerned about changes to Interphase. Although open to all freshmen, XL's primary purpose is to provide a study option for underrepresented minority students, whom Pitts defined as "any ethnic group not represented in the student body of the Institute by the same percentage as in the actual population."

Underrepresented minorities on campus include blacks, who make up about 12 percent of the national population but only nine percent of the MIT community, and hispanics, who compose nine percent of the US but only six percent of the Institute. In addition, fewer than 20 Native American students attend MIT.

Asian Americans are not considered underrepresented. Although they are a minority in the US population, Asian Americans make up about 20 percent of MIT students.

Pitts described XL as "an enrichment program that features small group learning." Students who work in smaller groups are "more productive with their work and find stimuli for actively exercising their minds," she said.

During the fall semester, XL students were required to spend four hours a week with a "facilitator" in groups of four or five to study both physics and calculus. Facilitators are more like teachers than tutors. MIT students were trained before starting to teach and were required to devise a lesson plan each week. In addition to academics, students attended orientation meetings and special lectures every Friday night.

Response to the program was so positive that instead of the required four hours spent in the classroom each week, many spent up to eight hours with their groups.

Pitts stated that many "realized the benefits of small group learning." Students were able to create an "esprit de corps, almost a camaraderie" with other members of their group -- something that is not found very often in the standard lecture and recitation combination, she felt.

Based on administrative and student reaction, Pitts said that she expects that Project XL will not only continue, but also grow in size. "Small group learning is worth being institutionalized, but change does not come easily," she said. "All students deserve quality education -- that is what MIT offers to its students. Project XL just makes sure that some students don't get lost in the shuffle," Pitts concluded.